Socratic dialogue attributed to Plato, although its genuineness is disputed. The topic of the dialogue is the definition of beauty.

The scenery of the dialogue

In a date undefined, Socrates encounters the sophist Hippias in Athens. The two men engage in an inquiry concerning the definition of beauty (to kalon). The dialogue is direct and plays out exclusively among the two dramatis personae. For the most part, however, Socrates appears as the porte parole of another person.

Structure and content

Hippias Major has the typical structure of early dialogues. In the lengthy prelude, we see the sophist bragging about the profits he makes by practicing his trade as an instructor of political virtue. This is even the very reason for his visit in Athens: to lecture on the subject of the beautiful endeavors that the youth had better pursue. Hippias’ employment of the term beautiful is opportune for Socrates who poses the focal question: what is the beautiful? Each interlocutor attempts at three definitions all of which are dialectically confuted by Socrates, who leads the inquiry to an aporetic conclusion. Hippias’ first definition (that the beautiful is a beautiful maiden) is discarded on the basis that a definition employs the general and not the particular. His second attempt: gold is the beautiful is dismissed because gold can spoil something when its addition to it is not becoming. In the third advancement, Hippias professes that wealthy social life and honored death illustrate what is generally befitting and appropriate; i.e. the beautiful. This is again rebutted on account of its failure to differentiate between the general and the particular. The next three definitions are articulated by Socrates. The refutation of the first (the beautiful is what is generally becoming and appropriate) pivots on the concession that the befitting affects things outwardly, ostensibly and not in their being. The fifth definition (the beautiful is the useful and specifically the beneficial – because the useful alone can be expedient for the ugly) is contested with the argument that the beneficial is the cause of good. Insofar as the effect is differentiated from its cause, it is inferable that the beneficial (i.e., the beautiful) as the cause of the good is something different than its effect. However, the interlocutors cannot endorse the absurdity of this outcome. The sixth definition (the beautiful is what is pleasant through hearing and sight) is overthrown because the definition demands the common quality that makes both of these pleasures beautiful. Even the alternative that hearing and sight taken together are one pleasure that makes something beautiful is ruled out because things exist which are pleasant to either one of them. The final reformulation of the argument (that benefit is the common quality of the two pleasures) is declined for the same reason as the fifth definition.

Date of composition

The subject of the date hinges on the dispute regarding the authenticity of the dialogue. The disagreement rests on the level of maturity involved in the contemplation of the idea of beauty. Those scholars who profess spuriousness attribute the composition to an intelligent author (in all probability, one of Plato’s pupils) with knowledge of Plato’s middle dialogues, where the theory of forms has reached an advanced level of autonomy. The adversaries, on the other hand, claim that the idea of beauty retains the nascent development of the first period, and, therefore, line up the dialogue along the early ones.

Comments

Three significant points can be raised:

1. The association of the notion of “beautiful” (to kalon) with aesthetic, moral and political connotations; topics that permeate the whole of the Platonic corpus.

2. The ability of dialectics to further our knowledge by gradually dispensing with our ignorance. The first three refutations emphasize the distinction between the general and the particular, thus elevating our intellect to more abstract conceptualizations. The last three demonstrate the cognitive potentials of abstract argumentation.

3. The posture each person assumes by the end of the dialogue indicates their ethos: dialectic elenchus, though it has not provided a positive conclusion, has shielded Socrates against the theoretical and practical mistakes committed by the sophist. The sophist, on the contrary, relapses into his former errors by claiming that the beautiful consists in being rewarded for delivering public speeches on judicial, political and other important issues. This position is dictated by his avarice for fame and wealth.

Author: Ioannis Telios
  • Καρούζος, Ι.Θ., Κακριδής, Ι.Θ. Πλάτων, Ιππίας Μείζων. Θεσσαλονίκη, 1973.
  • Grube, G. M. A. "On the Authenticity of the Hippias Maior." The Classical Quarterly 20 (1926)
  • Grube, G. M. A. "The Logic and Language of the Hippias Major." Classical Philology 24 (1929)
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